An ‘Arab Winter’ Chills Christians

p1-bd665_christ_g_201112041804491.jpgBy SAM DAGHER
BARTELLA, Iraq—The plight of Iraqi Christians since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been agonizingly personal for Aram Butrus Matti.

Hanging on the wall in his parents’ home here in northern Iraq are photographs of his cousin Yonan, his cousin’s spouse and their three-month-old son, who were among some 50 worshippers killed by suicide bombers in a Baghdad church in October 2010.

Ayman Oghanna for The Wall Street Journal.


At least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and at least 905 Christians killed in acts of violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In the wake of a series of attacks, Iraqi police, pictured, guard St. Barbara Church in the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq, a region to which Christians are being encouraged to relocate.

There also is a photo of his older brother, Noel, a pharmacist. Six years ago, Aram and Noel were kidnapped together in the nearby city of Mosul. Noel, then 44, was murdered. Aram was released only after his parents paid a ransom.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Matti, now 27, fled Mosul with the rest of his family to their ancestral village. Bartella is now ringed with trenches, earthen berms and checkpoints manned by local security forces to ward off attacks.

Mr. Matti is eager to leave Iraq for good.

With the Arab Spring now bringing political turbulence to many other countries in the region, Christians throughout the Middle East are worried that what happened in Iraq may be a harbinger of misfortune to come in their own communities. While many remain supporters of the uprisings, others fear that the toppling of their autocratic rulers could uncork sectarian violence against Christians and other minority groups in their own nations.

The sectarian violence that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and fall of Hussein in 2003 has been brutal for all Iraqis, including Muslim Shiites and Sunnis. But for the nation’s fragile Christian communities, it has been catastrophic.

At least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and at least 905 Christians killed in various acts of violence since the U.S. invasion toppled Hussein in 2003, according to Archbishop Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Sulimaniya. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled. A report on Iraq released Tuesday by Minority Rights Group International said that about 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2003.

“It’s a hemorrhage,” Archbishop Sako says. “Iraq could be emptied of Christians.”

Iraq’s Christians aren’t the only ones under pressure. In Egypt, long-simmering tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians have flared into violence. Christians, who account for about 10% of Egypt’s about 80 million people, worry that the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamic groups will erode some of the protections Christians had carved out under a succession of military-dominated governments.

In Syria, where Christians make up more than 5% of the population, minority groups of all sorts worry about the stability of the country’s ethnic and sectarian patchwork. If President Bashar Assad is overthrown, they say, those communities could turn on each other.


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Ayman Oghanna for The Wall Street Journal.

A worshiper receives Communion at St. Barbara Church during a Mass given by the Vatican’s representative in the country.

Lebanon suffered through 15 years of sectarian fighting in a civil war that ended in 1990. Although some Lebanese Christian leaders say they are hopeful about the Arab Spring’s promise of democracy, many also worry about the potential fallout for Christians.

“I am for the [Arab] Spring if it’s indeed a spring and not a prelude to a winter” of civil war and minority oppression, said Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, leader of the Lebanese Maronite Catholic Church, after a recent memorial service at Our Lady of Salvation, the Baghdad church where Mr. Matti’s relatives were killed.

The church now is barricaded behind blast walls and razor wire and secured by armed Iraqi government forces. Inside, a photo collage of the blast victims sits on the altar, and the black robes of two priests killed in the attack hang overhead. Dried blood is visible on the shrapnel-pocked ceiling.

In the city of Kirkuk, a car bomb exploded outside Holy Family church in August, wounding 15 and damaging the building. In April, a Christian man was kidnapped and later found dead after his family paid a $50,000 ransom, according to police officials.

Christian leaders such as Archbishop Sako say Iraqi Christians are caught in the middle as more powerful groups—the majority Shiite Muslims; the Sunni Muslims that dominate in Mosul and further south; and the Kurds in the north, who are predominantly Muslim—jockey for power in post-Hussein Iraq.

“In Iraq, the war has unleashed evil forces within the country…and has made all Iraqis victims,” said a report issued in conjunction with a synod of Middle Eastern bishops convened in Vatican City in October 2010. “However, since Christians represent the smallest and weakest part of Iraqi society, they are the principal victims of violence.”
[Christians] Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

[Christians] Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Iraqi church damaged by car bomb.

Iraqi church damaged by car bomb.

Some Christian leaders in the region say Christians are better off under authoritarian but secular regimes such as Mr. Assad’s in Syria. “I fear that extremist groups will put in place a worse rule,” says Patriarch al-Rai of the Lebanese Maronite Catholic Church.

In Egypt, many Coptic Christians took part in the demonstrations that led to the February collapse of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, dozens of Coptic Christians have died in violent clashes with Islamic extremists and the Egyptian ruling military, most recently on Oct. 9.

Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire businessman and one of Egypt’s highest profile Copts, founded a secular political party this year to counter what he describes as the threat of a “new dictatorship” by Islamist parties. Partial results released Sunday from last week’s parliamentary elections show Islamists garnering almost 60% of votes.

Cherbel Eid, head of the student league of the Lebanese Forces, a militant Christian political party supporting the Syrian uprising, rejects the argument that Christians in the Middle East are better off under authoritarian rulers. “It’s wrong for us [Christians] to preach servitude while others come forward to demand freedom day and night,” he said during a visit to northern Iraq last month.

In Syria, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, a political movement that supports Assyrian Christians and other minorities, was among the 10 founders of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group created in October in Istanbul.

Its counterpart in Iraq, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, battled Hussein’s regime for years. Now, as many Iraqi Christians flee the country, the movement is trying to persuade the Christian community to stay and fight for a part in the political process.

Kirkuk, an oil-rich city 180 miles north of Baghdad, had an estimated 30,000 Christians in the 1970s, according to Archbishop Sako. Now it has fewer than 10,000, he says, and the number is plummeting fast. Only the elderly and those with little chance of immigrating are left, he says.

Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen—diverse ethnic groups that are all Muslim—are engaged in a struggle, at times bloody, for control of the province. The wrangling also involves the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdistan regional government, which claims Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Scattered through the conflict zone are the last sizable clusters of Christians in Iraq.

On a mound overlooking the sprawling Bab Gurgur oil field on the outskirts of Kirkuk, the Kurds are building thousands of new homes on land they claim once was theirs, before it was taken by Hussein’s regime. They are urging Christians to leave central Kirkuk, where Christians have been attacked, and move to the area, known as Three Springs, which they say will be safer.

Kurdish authorities are giving about 100 land plots to Christian families. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions, is giving $10,000 to each family that receives land. The Kurdistan regional government has committed to build a new church to replace the prefabricated home that now serves as a chapel, according to Mufeed Haddad, mayor of the Christian settlement.

According to some residents of Kirkuk, all of this is being done with the understanding that Christians who move to the area will side with the Kurds in any future referendum to decide the fate of Kirkuk. In recent interviews, many Christians said they will because they feel safer with Kurds than Arabs.

Fifty Christian families have moved to Three Springs, although most of their children, they said, had immigrated abroad already.

Charlotte Benyamin, a 52-year-old widow with no children, plans to sell her home in Baghdad and move to Three Springs. Almost all Christian families in her Baghdad neighborhood, known as Sector 52, have left. She says she does not feel safe there on her own.

Ms. Benyamin says she’ll build a new house next door to her sister, Svetlana, who moved to Three Springs ahead of her. Her sister has two sons. One lives in Sweden. The other moved to Syria earlier this year to await possible asylum in a European country.

Svetlana Benyamin, who cares for an ailing husband in Three Springs, says that as a Christian, she felt safer before the fall of Hussein. “A thousand mercies on Saddam, at least we had security,” she says.

The Assyrian Democratic Movement is now trying to encourage Christians who went abroad to return to another part of Iraq known as the Nineveh Plain, sandwiched between the Kurdish region and Arab-dominated Mosul. The ADM wants to turn the area into a separate province answerable to Baghdad, which they hope would give it a measure of independence. ADM officials have lobbied central-government and Kurdistan regional authorities.

Bassem Belo, a senior ADM official and the mayor of the Nineveh Plain town of Tal Keif, says a province would translate into budget money from Baghdad, thousands of government jobs and investments from wealthy Iraqi Christians in the diaspora—all inducements for young Christians to stay.

Mr. Belo accuses the Kurdish leadership of undercutting the project by maintaining a heavy security presence in the Nineveh Plain, and of laying the groundwork for eventual annexation by the Kurdistan region.

Karim Sinjari, interior minister of the Kurdistan region, denies that and says it is entirely up to residents to decide if they want their own province or to join the region. He says Kurdish forces have been sent to the area to protect the population from insurgents and extremists, and that Christians would be better off joining the Kurdistan region. “Here they will be more protected, more free” to practice their religion, he says.

At the moment, fear of attacks has turned Christian-dominated enclaves in the Nineveh Plain, including Bartella, into fortresses. On some roads, Kurdish forces and Iraqi army soldiers man checkpoints in an uneasy arrangement until recently overseen by the U.S. military.

Many Christian families from Baghdad and Mosul had sought sanctuary in Bartella after the fall of Hussein. Now, these Christians are growing uneasy about several things: an influx of Kurds, the uncertain political future of the area and its bleak economic prospects.

Even within the relative safety of the Kurdistan region, Christians are threatened by Islamists emboldened by the Arab Spring. More than 30 people were wounded Friday when a mob instigated by a fiery mosque preacher set fire to liquor stores and hotels owned by Christians and other minorities in the northern city of Zakho.

Mr. Matti, who lost his brother to murder, recently got married to another Christian. He and his wife want to leave Iraq, preferably for Europe or the U.S., but his exit options are dwindling. He previously spent a year in Lebanon, but had to return to Iraq after his asylum bid was rejected.

Neighboring Syria, until recently, was a favored transit destination for Iraqi asylum seekers, including Christians. But relatives of the Mattis in the Syrian capital, Damascus, now are worried about their own future, should President Assad’s regime collapse.

“They are afraid,” said Mr. Matti. “They do not want a repeat of Iraq.”